Exhibitions for Startups - Ensuring Return on Your Investment

Being a young startup means always having to make tough decisions about how to spend your limited resources to find your early adopters. Should we up our AdWords and Twitter budgets or double down on an direct email campaign? Or maybe sponsor an event with some nifty new t-shirts to enhance our branding?

One of the most expensive approaches — in both time and money — is to exhibit at trade shows or conventions. When you combine the cost of event registration, designing an purchasing a booth, travel, logistics, marketing materials and swag, it all adds up quickly.

So how do you make the most out of the investment? Here at NextPlay it’s about following a few simple guidelines.

Matching Venue with Expectations

When it comes to exhibiting, there are a lot of available options.

Every week, I receive an invitation to some startup conference, tech convention or similar event as a means to showcase our product to investors or tech industry press. Although these can be useful is some cases, for us the core questions are: “Will our customers be there?” and “Will they be open to learning?”

For a sportstech startup like NextPlay, there is no substitute for meeting customers face to face to demo the product. By their nature, the coaches and athletes we serve are tactile, kinesthetic learners who need to touch and feel the product before they trust it enough to use.

More important than sales, however, is the learning we enjoy by seeing how prospective customers interact with the product and listening to what questions they ask. Sure, services like UserTesting can provide feedback in some regards, but there is nothing like a sport-specific coaches’ convention to give us new and long-lasting insights into NextPlay’s customers.

So, don’t expect to see us a TechCrunch’s Startup Alley or the Launch Festival’s Demo Pit.

It’s not our crowd. We’re looking to sell and learn — not drum up some pub.

Balancing the Booth

If you walk the expo hall at any event, you will find booths that run the gambit. From mega booths with oversize couches, iPhone charging stations and juice bars to the basic tables with a Vistaprint banner hanging in front of the curtain.

Given this disparity, it’s easy to get wrapped up in booth envy and shoot for ultra high-end setups - or maybe that popcorn maker to draw hungry attention.

Rather than focusing on keeping up with Under Armour, you should focus creating a booth that draws the right attention. A better approach however, is to put yourself in the place of your ideal customer and ask “what would you be looking for?”

In most cases, the answer is having a visually engaging booth that in one quick glance tells the attendee what problem your product solves, but encourages them to ask further questions.

In NextPlay’s case at the recent American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) Convention, we chose to go with a booth that was not only affordable and accessible, but also flexible enough to support exhibits at other sport-specific events later. We wanted to show the product as it might be used and had a display that let coaches take it for a ride themselves.

Our booth didn’t blow any minds, for sure. It was, however, very effective in delivering our message and serving as an inviting platform for talking to customers.

I’ll take simple and effective every time.

Perfect the Pitch

One unique event during the first day of the AVCA was the Marketplace Exchange. A speed-dating setup where 25 club directors met with exhibitors for five minute pitch sessions.

This was a great event for two reasons. First, it put us in front of potential customers who were explicitly there to learn about new products. If we couldn’t make the case there for NextPlay, we had issues.

Second, even before the booth was setup, we had 25 chances honing our pitch and quick demo with our target audience. We tried multiple approaches and eventually zeroed in one that proved very successful for the rest of the weekend.

Even if your expo doesn’t offer this type of event (I wish more did), it is absolutely critical for you to fine tune the quick pitch so when opportunity presents itself on the expo floor, you’re ready for game time.

Have a SWAG Strategy

In terms of giveaways, most exhibitors like to either sprinkle them around like pixie dust or dangle it in front of attendees to draw them in. Some hand out expensive flashy SWAG or hold contests for devices in exchange for signing up to their mailing list.

In our experience, however, these are rarely effective approaches. Those that would be drawn to the flash or to the prospect of winning the contest are unlikely to be the customers you want to engage. If they are more motivated by free stuff than the problem you solve, they will happily take your SWAG, but forget your product.

Our approach at NextPlay is to go with items that our core customer needs and frequently uses: whistles. Seems small, but as a coach myself, I can’t count the number of times I’ve lost my whistle. And with everyone else giving away teeshirts, the whistle serve as a unique branding vehicle for us.

In addition to being smart about what we chose to give away, we we also selective to when. Attendees only received these items after they heard our pitch - and then to those we thought were likely to use or signed up for an account.

Will most just use the whistle and never use NextPlay? Maybe. But by not dangling shiny objects as lures improves our chances and increases the value of the engagement for us.

Leverage Partnerships

Since our inception, NextPlay has taken a team approach towards serving our customers — and exhibiting is no different.

In advance of the AVCA event, we coordinated our efforts with our partner TeamSnap (http://www.teamsnap.com) to direct traffic to each other at the event.

We also spent considerable time at the event forging new partnerships with complementary services or products.

Follow-Up, Follow-Up, Follow-Up

As great as the exhibition is to build relationships with new users and partners, if you fail to follow up, you might as well have stayed home.

A few days after event, email your new contacts your contact information and a personalized not of thanks.

A few weeks later, re-engage on any discussions and try to setup another opportunity to discuss your product.

A few months later, provide them with a product updates, deals or even set the stage for the next exhibition event.

Right for You?

Investing in an exhibit at a trade show isn’t right for every small business. If done poorly, it can be an excruciating experience that can drain limited resources and worse, undermine confidence in the business.

But if founders take a smart approach, these high-intensity events can yield great results that build momentum in the market for the startup and its product.

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